As I exit the Moscow metro and turn left, I'm dazzled by what I see – the adventure shopper's jackpot! One long block from the station, the bright wooden cut-outs of a Russian folk village rise into the sky, marking the world-class craft fair, Izmailova.
Before hitting the market though, I have to wind my way through the pre-market market. On either side of the sidewalk, stalls are set up carrying everything from Capri pants to yarn to nail polish remover to funny little flaky pastries. Buskers attack from every side trying to entice me into the extracurricular parlors. I am not to be deterred, though, with one exception. At the end of the walkway, just before the market gates, I always stop to watch the performing bears. Every day the man is there behind the fence with his sleek, plump bears that clap, turn to music and perform a variety of tricks. It is impossible not to put pocket change into the box labeled (in English), "To Feed the Bears". And, I suppose, to feed the owners, too.
I cross the road, dodging the vicious Moscow traffic to reach the gates. Women in native costume collect 10 rubles, about 30 cents. They wave me into one of the largest outdoor craft markets in the world where you can find all of Russia's crafts: jewelry, lacquer boxes, toys, embroidered linens, antiques, etc.
Three lanes open from the gates with wobbly wooden boards in front of the kiosks for protection from mud in bad weather. (You still have to be careful to avoid a broken leg.) It is always worth perusing the goods in these center lanes before returning to buy, if better bargains are not found further on. Some of the best items in this area are the latest in copies of American DVDs, the solace to every expatriate's heart. They run about three US dollars (legal in Russia). Vendors throw in the jewel case and the movie reviews for free. The second item is the Pashmina scarves. I am given a price in rubles equaling $10.00 to $25.00, depending on quality and size. They're pretty, pack small and light, the perfect gift.
The other kiosk not to miss, third lane on the right, is the one where the fellow makes sports team Matryoshka dolls, a twist on the traditional Russian nesting dolls. He can recite each member of the team, stacked one inside the other, as well as the season's statistics.
If I follow the central area to the end, I bump into the racks of Russian hats. These are the ones made of fur and leather that we associate with Dr. Zhivago. They come in a wide variety of colors, sizes and furs, and are flanked by motley animal hides displayed on the stairs going up the hill to the upper corridors. Before venturing onto the stairs, I turn right to check out Soviet posters, both copies and originals, as well as large pictures from traditional children's stories.
Next door to the poster man is an indoor store carrying wide, warm squares of folk shawls. I poke a bit and turn around to take the lane to the left of center. My heart is dancing now because here I will find the two kiosks with the best bargains of Gzhel, fanciful plates, teapots, cups, hand painted in blues on white ceramic. Down the way is the babushka, old lady, who helps me select amber baubles for my relatives which she sells by weight. Her prices are half that of the central stalls. My tote bag is beginning to bulge.
Upstairs is an antiques aisle, but foreigners are not allowed to take the golden icon or silver samovar out of the country without official paperwork. I work my way past the antiques and through the artists' row of Russian landscapes and portraits toward the front, where I find the kiosk run by the brother of a famous Matryoshka artist whose dolls have the extra dimension of carvings as well as paintings. Up to a couple of years ago, I could have bargained down the market's proffered prices, but in this era of the sinking dollar, vendors are less willing to negotiate. However, with three or four items purchased, I can expect a 10% discount.
Throughout the market are Christmas ornaments: dolls, Russian Orthodox Churches and onion-domed wooden balls. There are mechanical toys and carved birch bark boxes, the latter traditionally used for food storage and to keep ants out of the sugar. Detailed hand-painted lacquer boxes run from a few dollars to significant amounts. Vendors are knowledgeable and can tell the history of the artist, the styles and the scenes depicted on their wares.
Everything is cash only and limited in quantity. I watched as a well-dressed American woman was fondly caressing a small ornament of a Russian lady with a tiny hand muff. She told the vendor, "I would like fifty of these." I scooted away, stifling my laughter as the vendor stared in shock and shook his head.
There are Soviet medals, hats and flags for history buffs. The Russian mania for pins is catered to, both common and rare. Most of the vendors speak a little English and are polite, often friendly and always honest.
By the time I've covered the market, I'm eager to follow the aroma of shashlik (Shish kebab) to the grills at the market's entrance. I order my favorite, small lamb chops, rice, warm flat bread and the ever-present Russian tomatoes and cucumbers. With a seat at one of the picnic tables, I happily stuff myself, reviewing the treasures of the day.
Izmaelova is the fourth metro stop west of Kurskaya, now called Partizanskaya, used to be called Izmaelova Park, which leads to some confusion in signage. Metro signs are only in Russian, but you can easily navigate by counting the stops. The Moscow metro is a one-price-per-ride; trains come every two minutes. Bring a sturdy tote bag; the thin Russian plastic bags are difficult to manage and prone to tearing. Wear comfortable shoes and have a jacket or scarf; the market lanes act as a wind tunnel even in fine weather. Carry cash and your identification papers. I never had difficulty with theft, but it always pays to be cautious.